Julian Barnes: The Only Story

I tend to mix up some of the middle-aged white male Anglo-Saxon writers. Philip Roth with Saul Bellow, Updike with DeLillo, Martin Amis with Will Self, David Foster Wallace with Brett Easton Ellis. I have read some of their books, mostly in my youth, but I would not make great efforts now to seek them out (Saul Bellow is perhaps the one I remember most fondly out of the lot). One writer I do not confuse with any of the above is Julian Barnes. I haven’t loved all of his books, but he is more often a hit than a miss for me, even though he too can go on a bit about midlife crisis and middle class problems. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that – quite a few readers are in that category, including me, so can relate to all that! – it’s just bad when those are the only kind of books to get published or to win prizes, when they become (forgive the pun) The Only Story. But hopefully all that is changing now!

I admired it but was ever so slightly disappointed by Barnes’ previous novel, the reimagining of three key moments in Shostakovich’s life, but here he goes back to familiar territory, an older man musing on the loves and choices of his youth. 19 year old Paul falls in love with an older married woman – they settle down to live happily ever after, but things don’t work out like that. That’s the story in a nutshell, but it doesn’t do justice to that beatiful sense of yearning, of missed opportunities, of gaining wisdom but losing passion.

Barnes has such insight into human beings, into those stories we tell ourselves, the justifications we use, but is bitingly honest about what lies underneath. At times, it can feel like an extended meditation about regrets and growing older, but it’s full of quotable passages and tangential rants (which nevertheless suit young Paul well).

What did I dislike and distrust about adulthood? Well, to put it briefly: the sense of entitlement, the sense of superiority, the assumption of knowing better if not best, the vast banality of adult opinions, the way women took out compacts and powdered their noses, the way men sat in armchairs with their legs apart and their privates heavily outlined against their trousers, the way they talked about gardens and gardening…… their docile obedience to social norms, their snarky disapproval of anything satirical or questioning, their assumption that their children’s success would be measured by how well they imitated their parents, the suffocaitng noise they made when agreeing with one another…

It seemed to me, back then… that love had nothing to do with practicality; indeed, was its polar opposite. And the fact that it showed contempt for such banal considerations was part of its glory. Love was by its very nature disruptive, cataclysmic; and it if was not, then it was not love.

I didn’t realize that there was panic inside her. How could I have guessed? I thought it was just inside me. Now, I realize, rather late in the day, that it is in everyone. It’s a condition of our mortality. We have codes of manners to allay and minimise it, jokes and routines, and so many forms of diversion and distraction. But there is panic and pandemonium waiting to break out inside all of us…

… by that time he had made the most terrifying discovery of his life… the realization that love, even the most ardent and the most sincere, can, given the correct assault, curdle into a mixture of pity and anger. His love had gone, had been drive out, month by month, year by year. But what shocked him was that the emotions which replaced it were just as violent as the love which had previously stood in his heart.

From Lincoln in the Bardo #6degrees

Kate has another challenge for us in linking books starting from Lincoln in the Bardo this month in Six Degrees of Separation. I haven’t read the book by George Saunders yet, but I do have it lined up somewhere in the cloud waiting for my new Kindle to arrive. (Yes, I can’t find my previous one, so had to give in and order a new one)

The book famously deals with American president Abraham Lincoln and his grief at losing his son. Another American almost-president who lost a son is Alexander Hamilton and I’ve been relishing the book about the making of the stage show Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Congratulations, Lin-Manuel on the birth of your second child a couple of days ago!)

The degree to which Hamilton is viewed with envy by Aaron Burr and the way the story is narrated reminded me very much of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, where Salieri also grumbles and can’t quite believe that God wasted all his gifts on such an unworthy recipient (to his mind), yet finally realises his own mediocrity.

There are plenty of books with musical connections, but one which particularly stuck with me in recent years was The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, showing three key moments in the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, his fear of the Soviet regime and his giving in to it (but forever haunted by that).

Of course, the book about censorship and destruction of culture is Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which terrified me when I first read it as a child. Perhaps because I was living in conditions which reminded me a bit of those extremes. Ah, those photocopied forbidden books, and badly dubbed bootlegged copies of forbidden films!

Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer also has a number in its title and is a tense thriller set in one of my favourite places on earth, Cape Town, and one of my favourite scruffy but reliable detectives, Benny Griessel. Not perhaps a glowing advertisement for visiting South Africa (as a young American tourist is hunted through the streets of the city), but a great sense of atmosphere.

For my final link, I will stick to another South African writer who I think deserves to be far, far better known, but whose downfall is perhaps that she writes across all genres. Lauren Beukes is one of the most creative minds in modern fiction and has achieved some recognition for The Shining Girls about a time-travelling serial killer (now that I’ve read Hawksmoor, it reminds me a little of that). But I would like to link here an earlier book of hers, Moxyland, a political thriller about race, discrimination and being controlled by technology.

So from 19th and 18th century America to Vienna to the Soviet Union and South Africa, as well as a couple of dystopian unnamed societies. Where will your bookish travels take you this month?

Fiction Set in Dysfunctional Societies

Yasmina Khadra’s Algeria

KhadraSingesThis is the work of an Algerian writer disillusioned with his country. Disguised as a crime novel and a murder investigation, it is actually an indictment of the corruption of Algerian politics, law, police force and journalism.

A young girl is found dead in a forest outside Alger and Nora Bilal, one of the few female officers in the Algerian police, is entrusted with the investigation. Her methods are questioned and she is personally disrespected at every turn, especially when it turns out that some political figures may be involved in a complicated story of prostitution and thirst for power. Brutal, with a high body count and utterly merciless protagonists, as well as some very brave (or foolhardy) police officers, this is not a pleasant story. Khadra can come across as preachy sometimes, but he can also weave an exciting story, which ends in a very unexpected and dramatic fashion.

Other powerful fictional (more or less) representations of Algeria: Yasmina Khadra’s What the Day Owes the Night; Assia Djebar’s Algerian White; Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation.

Dan Fesperman’s Sarajevo

fespermanThe war in Yugoslavia: it’s about 1994/95 and Sarajevo has been under siege for about 2 years now. Vlado Petric has escaped army conscription by being a police officer, but even he has to admit that his job is utter nonsense: what does a domestic murder matter in a city where so many die daily in mortar attacks or shot by snipers?

Yet one night, when he stumbles in the dark upon a victim of shooting, close inspection reveals that this is no sniper incident, but a deliberate murder at close range. The victim is a head of security in the newly formed Bosnian Ministry of Interior, and it appears he trod on many toes: smugglers, black marketeers, local militia and so on. However, Vlado soon becomes convinced that something much bigger was at stake.

How is it possible to investigate in a city ravaged by hunger, corruption and desperation? How is it possible to keep your head and your integrity when all about you there is nothing but darkness and greed? This is an outstanding portrayal of a city and society driven to the utter limits, and you can forgive any plot inconsistencies or the rushed ending for the atmosphere it evokes.

Other books about Sarajevo which have stuck in my mind: Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, Alma Lazarevska’s Death in the Museum of Modern Art and Zlata Filipovic: Zlata’s Diary, for a child’s perspective on war.

barnesJulian Barnes’ Soviet Union

Barnes is a keen Francophile and has lived in France, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he has adopted the French habit of a mélange between biography and fiction for his latest novel, an imagining of three key moments in the life of composer Dmitry Shostakovich.

In the first instance, we see a young, anxious Shostakovich waiting with his suitcase beside the lift in his block of flats, fully expecting to be taken in by the KGB for questioning during Stalin’s worst purges in the 1930s. His recent opera was denounced as bourgeois and unpalatable, and he wants to spare his family the pain of being carted away in front of their eyes. The second moment occurs ten years later, when he has survived the war and even emerged as a leading composer, reliable enough to be sent to a congress in the US, but nevertheless very fearful of saying or thinking the wrong thing. Finally, we see him old, resigned and somewhat complicit with the arguably more liberal regime under Khrushchev.

Although the biographical detail is fascinating and probably quite accurate, it’s the human and individual reaction to an oppressive regime, the attempt to create something of lasting artistic value within the constraints of prescribed Communist values, which makes this book really interesting. The daily fears and gradual compromises are described with great insight, candour and compassion. I will be writing a full review of this remarkable (and quite short) work for the next issue of Shiny New Books.

Other unforgettable books about the Soviet regime: Martin Cruz Smith Gorky Park; Tom Rob Smith: Child 44; Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago; Solzhenitsyn: The First Circle.